Topics:    Tamil family; UK FTA; G7 and China; Decarbonisation; Four Corners story


Hamish MacDonald:  Simon Birmingham is Finance Minister and Government Leader in the Senate. He’s in our Parliament House studio this morning. Good morning to you, Senator.


Simon Birmingham: Good morning, Hamish. It’s good to be with you again.


Hamish MacDonald: Can you confirm what is in fact happening today in relation to the Biloela family?


Simon Birmingham: Hamish, the Immigration Minister, Alex Hawke is working through appropriate responses in terms of assessing the health situation, the humanitarian situation, and working there to ensure that the family, as I understand it, will be reunited, but also looking at other matters. And Alex will have more to say, I’m sure, on that during the course of today.


Hamish MacDonald: Sure. Will they be reunited in Perth, though? Is that the intention at this point?


Simon Birmingham: Well, at present the young girl is, as you said, in a Perth hospital. So that would be my expectation in terms of bringing them together in that first instance. And Alex will be able to outline further what else can occur. I mean, there are two significant principles at play here in relation to our migration system. One is the principle around border security and making sure that those who do not have a legitimate claim for refugee status have been properly assessed and found not to have a claim aren’t able to circumvent those processes. But the other then is, of course, the principle around compassion and circumstances have changed in the last week or so with, of course, the admission to hospital of this young girl. And the government’s been listening very carefully to the community and looking very carefully at the situation there. And that’s why these decisions are no doubt being taken by Minister Hawke and why he’ll have more to say in that regard.


Hamish MacDonald: Could you just explain that principle a little further? Because it is very clear that this family has not at least the parents have not been found to be refugees. I understand that one of the children has not had their matter fully heard in relation to that. So what are the conditions that have changed such that the government is now considering a changed circumstance?


Simon Birmingham: Well, compassion is an important principle in this regard. And I think all Australians expect that there is an understanding when it comes to innocent children that we will look carefully at circumstances. Now, it would have been preferable if the parents who had been assessed properly through the Australian process has been found not to have a legitimate claim as refugees had accepted those findings and had relocated some years ago when those findings were first made back to Sri Lanka. Unfortunately, they chose to pursue a range of different legal avenues that have delayed but not changed that determination in relation to the parents. But we do have young children now in play. We have a young child who has been admitted to hospital. And of course, that’s part of the reason why the Immigration Minister holds certain discretionary powers to be able to respond appropriately and compassionately where necessary as circumstances change, as they did over the last week or so.


Hamish MacDonald: Will this family be held in community detention or would they be free to go back to Biloela where they have a community?


Simon Birmingham: Minister Hawke is working through what he’s understanding is in knowledge of the health situation and other relevant factors. And, I’m sure he will be able to address probably those issues when he makes a public announcement around next steps during the course of the day.


Hamish MacDonald: These girls were born in Australia. Do you think ultimately they should stay here long term?


Simon Birmingham: Hamish, as I said before, ideally the parents would have accepted the determination of the thorough Australian process. They sought to appeal these matters all the way through to the high court in relation to this status. They were unsuccessful in being able to do so. So it’s been given very thorough consideration there-


Hamish MacDonald: Sure but I’m asking about the [indistinct] two little girls.


Simon Birmingham: Hamish, it is important not to create a situation where people are able to subvert or work around Australia’s migration laws just by having a child whilst they’re in Australia challenging the validity of those laws.


Hamish MacDonald: Are you saying that’s what you think they’re doing?


Simon Birmingham: Well, I’m not saying that they did that for those purposes, but you can’t set and don’t wish to set ad s government, a precedent that would create any type of circumstance for that in the future. Now, what’s changed in relation to this family in these circumstances is a young girl being admitted to hospital. And in those cases, of course, it’s right for the government to get all of the information, understand the whole situation, and consider whether those compassionate principles need to come into play.


Hamish MacDonald: In other news this morning, Scott Morrison is making the British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, in London. Will he sign the free trade deal or at least an in principle agreement for an FTA?


Simon Birmingham: I’m very hopeful that we will see. Australia and the UK reaching in principle agreement. I’ve spoken again this morning with the Trade Minister Dan Tehan, my successor in that role and he is, of course, keeping close contact. The two prime ministers worked through dinner time in the UK working through some of the different issues for the Australia UK trade agreement. Minister Tehan and his UK counterpart, Liz Truss, will now work through the day in Australia, in the night in the UK to try to get to a position where in principle agreement is settled by tomorrow. It will only be done, of course, if it’s a good deal for Australia and crucially in that sense is making sure that our farmers and our agricultural sector get the type of export access along with other small businesses that we expect in a trade agreement to truly open up markets and flow between two nations.


Hamish MacDonald: Specifically, what is in this for Australia?


Simon Birmingham: Well, Australia had had a very significant market into the United Kingdom prior to their entry into the European common market some four decades or so ago. The changed arrangements there that saw the UK put in place high tariffs and quotas as part of as part of the arrangements from Europe, then eroded over a long period of time. Australia’s position in the UK market. If we can get back to an era or position where we have substantial elimination of tariffs and quotas for Australian goods, as well as an opening up of services markets, then it does provide access to a very significant, very high value market in the UK. Now, I don’t expect us to go back to the type of goods trade that we had back there in the 1960s or earlier, because ultimately times have changed. Our growth and our potential in our own region much closer to home has expanded significantly and so has our export access into many of the countries of our region. But there are opportunities and it will be a big win for Australia’s farmers and small businesses. If Prime Minister Morrison can seal this deal while he’s in the UK.


Hamish MacDonald: Would it be a big win for Australian farmers if the rules around British backpackers extending their visas meant that they didn’t have to do agricultural work in order to extend the visa, then that say it could mean losing up to 10,000 farm workers.


Simon Birmingham: We’re very cognisant of all of the issues there. We’ve certainly looked at our arguments put from all sides about a desire to ensure mobility between Australia and the UK is enhanced as well, that many Australians enjoy the opportunity to live and work for a period of time in the UK, just as we welcome many Brits to do so as well. Now, we have expanded through many of our trade agreements over recent time, the opportunity, especially for seasonal workers, for targeted workers in those agricultural sectors. This is about getting a deal that will be good for Australian farmers in agriculture. First and foremost, trade agreements are about the movement of goods. The movement of trade in services. It’s not first and foremost an immigration agreement, but we look to get wins there where we possibly can too.


Hamish MacDonald: You will have watched events of the G7 and at NATO over the past 48 hours, Australia has felt the cold shoulder of China. Now, for some time, you would have felt it strongly as trade minister, but both the G7 and NATO taking fairly strong positions on China. Do you think we now less isolated than we were before?


Simon Birmingham: There is an increasing awareness across the world in relation to the challenges posed by a more assertive China. And we’ve seen that growth in understanding from many nations. And it’s not just Australia who has faced certain punitive trade or other sanctions from time to time. It’s not just Australia who has been concerned about human rights abuses or about indeed more assertive measures and gestures in areas such as the South China Sea. These concerns have been widespread. I think what you are seeing coming out of the discussions in NATO and increasingly around the world is that like-minded partners are more willing to talk openly about these concerns and to discuss how best to ensure that we use the international fora available to us to seek to peacefully but firmly take positions in relation to these matters. And indeed, the approach the Biden Administration has taken been very clear, as they have been in relation to their concerns about China, but very engaging with other democratic partner nations around the world is helping to build that type of strong alliance that we hope will see China engage constructively in relation to working through such concerns.


Hamish MacDonald: Speaking of constructive alliances, the G7 leaders are forging ahead with more ambitious 2030 carbon cuts. That includes a commitment to an overwhelmingly decarbonised power system in the 2030s.  Yet, here in this country, we have the acting prime minister, Michael McCormack, vigorously defending coal, saying it has a part to play for many more years to come. He also said it pays for a lot of Barista machines that produce the coffee inner city types sit around and drink and talk about the death of coal. Aren’t we pass that sort of petty point scoring by now?


Simon Birmingham: Well, I didn’t see the questions that were thrown at the Deputy Prime Minister there. What’s happened over in the UK is the Prime Minister Morrison has signed as part of his travels agreements with Singapore and Germany in relation to hydrogen cooperation with Japan in relation to matters of decarbonisation, that all of this is in alignment very much with the 20 billion dollar technology investment roadmap that we’ve outlined that seeks to really achieve delivery of the technologies that will enable the world to get to net zero. And that’s where our focus firmly lies. Coal continues to play a very important role in many Australian economies. But as Prime Minister Morrison has said from the UK and has said on a number of occasions before, there is a change happening in global energy markets. And the reason he is pursuing such ambitious approaches in areas such as hydrogen is because he wants to ensure that Australia can be at the forefront of benefits in the new energy environment of the future, just as we have been able to be positioned in the traditional energy sectors.


Hamish MacDonald: Finally and briefly, last night’s Four Corners reported on the friendship between Scott Morrison and the QAnon conspiracy theorist Tim Stewart. Can you reassure listeners this morning that neither Tim Stewart nor his views have any influence over the PM?


Simon Birmingham: The Prime Minister’s made it very clear that he sees QAnon as being a discredited and dangerous fringe group. And I can assure all listeners that the first primary and most important source of advice on security matters the Prime Minister takes it from Australia’s national security agencies.


Hamish MacDonald: Simon Birmingham. Thank you very much.


Simon Birmingham: Thanks, Hamish.